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Painter Edith Schloss remembers a life lived in art

By on December 23, 2021 0



Like a classic fable, the memories of painter Edith Schloss begin suddenly and discreetly. In The Loft Generation: from Koonings to Twombly: portraits and sketches 1942-2011 (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2021), we meet a young Schloss at a party on a farm in New Jersey where she is spellbound by a small abstract “green and gray and black” painting that “leans a curvilinear shape like a figure eight or two sliced ohs perfectly fitting, egg-shaped shapes. A great patrician painter named Fairfeld Porter materializes, offering to escort him to meet the artist who had made it. A week later, Schloss follows Porter through the wintery Chelsea canyons, to a dilapidated factory building, climbs steep wooden stairs to a small door which an obscure and struggling artist named Willem reluctantly responds to. by Kooning.

The rest of Schloss’s story is not, as a conventional autobiography would say, pure history. Instead, using an approach taken by modernist art memoirs like Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, The loft generation is nonlinear and associative. Schloss’s project – edited in book form by a creative team that included his son, Jacob Burckhardt, and Italian Schloss editor, Mary Venturi – also doesn’t serve as heartwarming nostalgia for gritty old New York. The memoir is steeped in granular physical detail and is candid about its ambivalences, even those embellished with humorous anecdotes. Spoiler alert: Dedicated artists don’t necessarily make model citizens.

Edith Schloss, The Loft Generation: Des de Koonings à Twombly: Portraits and Sketches 1942-2011, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2021 (image courtesy of Farrar Straus & Giroux)

As absorbed as it is by its motley cast of characters, the memoir minimizes the facts about the life of its author, details that are complemented by a preface by artist Mira Schor and an afterword by Jacob Burckhardt. Born in Germany in 1919, knowing several languages ​​and immersed in European art after working as an au pair in Italy in the 1930s, Schloss fled to Britain when World War II broke out. Sponsored by a Quaker group in America, she traveled to New York, studied with Harry Sternberg and Will Barnet at the Art Students League, and set up a home studio in a loft at 116 West 21st Street, across from the ‘building. where she had met de Kooning that fateful winter afternoon with Porter. Soon after, she married painter, filmmaker and photographer Rudy Burckhardt, the bohemian descendant of the Swiss aristocracy, with whom she remained until, in the early 1960s, their marriage dissolved and she s ‘installed in Italy.

Initially, Schloss’s neighbors, the young people of Koonings – Bill and Elaine – form a focal point in an avant-garde art scene that has not yet fully materialized. Willem’s enigmatic aphorisms about the compressed abstract brush visible in Renaissance portraits convince Schloss that the masters of the past – whose techniques she believed were beyond her reach – can inform the pictorial idioms developing in New York City. after war. And de Kooning’s passion in the studio produces “flows, drops and splashes of paint, linear demarcations and gashes like borders. […] cascades of paint and wide bands of cancellations.

Competing with these raptures on de Kooning’s savage finesse, Schloss describes seeing dancer George Balanchine’s innovative choreography in which “American street bodies […] build compositions made of movement. This emphasis on bodily expressionism is shared by Schloss colleagues through art forms, who “strive[e] for the joy and clarity of movement, pure and fine beyond time.

Bill and Elaine de Kooning. Photograph by Rudy Burckhardt, 1950 (© 1950 The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)

The poet Edwin Denby, the main performer of these new movements, is the most captivating figure in memories. The son of a diplomat and dancer by training, Schloss’s Denby is built on compelling contradictions: carefree and melancholy, courteous and insecure, aristocratic and streetwise. He advises young artists to come out of a cocktail party with two phone numbers, “one for business and one for the bed,” and the poet’s extended stays with Rudy Burckhardt often strain Schloss’ marriage. Arguably America’s most prescient writer on the subject of dance, Denby is also an essential mentor for downtown artists turned art journalists like Schloss and Elaine de Kooning,

New art avatars, like Denby, recur throughout The loft generation, serving as vivid motifs in an interpersonal songbook, though he too quickly checks the names of overlooked pioneers, such as painter Nell Blaine, co-founder of the Jane Street Gallery, and Schloss’s two closest friends , painter-poet Helen DeMott and painter and printmaker Lucie Vernarelli. Burckhardt immortalized the trio in a photomontage, “On the Roofs of Chelsea” (1950), prompting Denby to christen the girlfriends “Chelsea Girls” long before Warhol and other inner-city dwellers adopted the moniker.

Fittingly, music and musicians play lead roles as well, with close-ups of two divergent but comparably influential New York composers, John Cage and Elliot Carter, the latter whom Schloss admires, as does the New York poet. Yorker John Ashbery, for “American respect for civilized sincerity and the European past”.

The main agents of power on the scene share this mid-century balance between enlightened respect for artistic tradition and ecumenical openness to the authentic radical. Against protests from staff and subscribers, Artistic news Chef Tom Hess recruits poets and non-academics, including Schloss, to invent new poetic vernaculars to write about new art, while avant-garde Manhattan gallery owners prove a keen business acumen can also involve creating an audience that didn’t know what they wanted. was the unforeseen or the unexpected.

Helen DeMott (left) and Lucia Vernarelli (right), who along with Edith were the original “Chelsea Girls”. Photograph by Rudy Burckhardt, circa 1950 (© 1950 The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)

In this vein, The loft generation recovers the iconoclasts whose contemporary influence on the era of his peers has faded over the decades. Schloss remembers the artist Franz Kline, who, in the early 1950s, renewed the disciplined impetus of Action Painting, in “Big black lines, joined and nested, exploded and cut, rushing like the force of machines and transcontinental trains […] a sort of thunderous painting, mysteriously fair. She focuses on the long unrecognized lyricism of poet James Schuyler and reads his poetry’s liberal use of brand names and household products as a literary harbinger of Pop Art.

Such concise ideas overlap with damnations by low praise. Although his Bronx bad boy public persona fascinates Schloss and his peers, the actual artwork produced by jazzman-turned-painter Larry Rivers is “more bland than daring” and his effortless charismatic friend Frank O’Hara is at his best as an “occasional poet”. “Creation of worms” full of strange and ends of candles … [that] cherished and touched sharp bits of city life as they arrived, making quicksilver stale and dreary for a second.

Philip Guston in his studio. Photograph by Rudy Burckhardt, circa 1960 (© 1960 The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)

And the painter Philip Guston, “whose work was equally suspect,” practiced an “abstract impressionism” which “hovered rather than moved” although his subsequent break with[ing] its first symbols of obscure perversion and oppression and the sly humor of the funny ones into something all its own, horribly joyful [and] madly bracing.

As an individual, Schloss enters a more focused vision when she left the proverbial loft party for a less crowded European stage in 1962, beginning a period of reflection that provides a long autobiographical coda. Living in Italy, she befriends aging modernist Giorgio Morandi, who fatally informs her that films and television have forever supplanted the lost cultural power of painting, and American expatriate Cy Twombly, whose Studio methods have had as direct an influence on Schloss’s practice as that of Kooning’s for decades. earlier.

Everything does not age well. The lack of revised opinions with the benefit of more than half a century of hindsight leads Schloss to ignore or downplay the work of her peers, an oversight that strangely extends to Schloss’ artistic development, of which she tells hardly a word. She dismisses Betty Parsons’ far-sighted New York gallery – which brought world-renowned artists like Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin to their first performance – as an appetizer before “the main course” hung in galleries run by Sidney Janis and Leo Castelli .

Edith Schloss, “Rignalla” (1967) (© 1967 The Estate of Edith Schloss Burckhardt. Photograph by Jacob Burckhardt)

And yet, in his last moments, an inexorable solidarity with women exerts psychic resonances on an aging Schloss. She supervises the American artist Francesca Woodman during her semester abroad in Rome. In a misguided effort to better understand the art of Woodman, who committed suicide at the age of 22, Schloss almost idealizes suicidal self-destruction when she describes Woodman: “Making herself an object as part of his objects. , she stretches clean tender skin and offers it to the waterproof eye of her camera.

Schloss holds the memories together with letters of reverence addressed, respectively, to late artist friends Elaine de Kooning and Swiss-German surrealist Meret Oppenheim. In the longest and most flexible prose poetry in the book, she pays homage to Oppenheim’s intrepid metamorphic imagination. As in so much of his finely distilled prose, The loft generation creates here another memory-mirror, because the literary portrait is coupled with a veiled self-portrait, and the high-level creative risks taken by others are always in part the work of Schloss.

The Loft Generation: from Koonings to Twombly: portraits and sketches 1942-2011 by Edith Schloss (2021) is published by Farrar Straus & Giroux and is available online and in bookstores.


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